This fall, four seats on the seven-member Board of Commissioners are on the ballot in Hennepin County.
The results could usher in big changes for a body that plays a big role in regional government. The board oversees a $2.5 billion budget, and commissioners oversee vital systems in the state’s largest county, including health care, housing, law enforcement, libraries, transit and infrastructure.
Here is a look at each of the races and the candidates’ top priorities for the board:
County Commissioner Mike Opat, the longest tenured member, is retiring from the seat that represents the northeast part of the county, an area that includes the communities of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, Osseo and Robbinsdale on the board. To replace Opat in District 1, the two candidates who made it out of the Aug. 11 primary are De’Vonna Pittman and Jeff Lunde.
Pittman, who lives in New Hope, works for Hennepin County as a disparity reduction coordinator, and has been endorsed by the DFL, Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 5 and the Teamsters Joint Council 32.
“The thing about this district is that, south of 85th, there are different concerns,” said Pittman, referring to the street in Brooklyn Park that splits the northern part of the district from the southern. “South of 85th, the critical issues are housing and unemployment.”
In her work for the county over the last three years, Pittman said she has gained experience seeking out groups that could use a boost in access to jobs, housing and advocacy in the corrections system. She supports the county’s law enforcement leader, Sheriff David Hutchinson, calling him a “great guy” who is open to hearing feedback. Pittman said her workforce development plans would focus on environmentally conscious jobs in solar power and other green jobs, and she added that she is in favor of affordable housing models like contract-for-deed programs and community land trusts.
Lunde, an IT manager, is currently in his third term as mayor of Brooklyn Park. Though he initially ran for that office as a Republican-endorsed candidate, he has since avoided seeking party endorsements. “I don’t have parties behind me,” said Lund. “I have what I have.”
That includes experience on the Brooklyn Park City Council and nearly a decade as mayor, during which time the city added policies, like the duty to intervene when an officer is acting inappropriately and requiring police to give a warning before firing their gun, that other departments are beginning to consider in the wake of George Floyd’s death. He also touts city initiatives to increase after-school activities by 60 percent, which resulted in the city seeing a 40 percent dip in the crime rate during those corresponding hours.
Lunde notes that Brooklyn Park is the sixth largest city in the state and is more diverse than Minneapolis.
“I’m not walking into this job trying to learn the parameters,” said Lunde. “I live, eat and breathe it every day.” He said he supports data-driven plans that actively quantify and measure results, and wants to focus on building partnerships with other agencies and organizations to address housing and food security issues that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
First elected to the Hennepin County Board in 2016, Commissioner Debbie Goettel is now running for reelection for the seat that represents the communities of Bloomington, Eden Prairie and Richfield. Goettel is being challenged by Boni Njenga.
Goettel, a former mayor of Richfield, has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Tina Smith as well as the mayors of Richfield and Eden Prairie and several City Council members and state legislators from cities in the district. Goettel said her top priority is continuing the work of managing the pandemic crises by efficiently funneling federal dollars toward county programs that help people keep their jobs, their homes and enough food for their families. During her time on the board, she’s worked to expand shelter space into hotels so that people would have shelter while being able to socially distance.
Goettel also said she supports adding money to a county fund that looks to protect what’s known as naturally occurring affordable housing. Her other top priorities are giving residents isolated by quarantine greater access to mental health services, and addressing environmental issues like watershed cleanup and helping cities experiencing flooding for the first time. She also backs Sheriff Hutchinson, whom she called a “forward-thinking leader.”
Njenga, who lives in Bloomington and is a policy consultant, said affordable housing is his chief issue. If elected, Njenga wants to create safe affordable housing that “integrates” with the transportation and grocery options. He also said he would also focus on the opioid epidemic. “This summer we had more than 10,” deaths from opioid overdoses, he noted, and wants county resources to go toward culturally competent outreach.
Njenga said his focus on the board would also be on bringing the region a stronger voice in light rail decision-making and, as a policy consultant by trade, bring more accountability and transparency to things like tax levy increases and Hennepin County Medical Center’s budget.
Current District 6 Commissioner Jan Callison is not seeking re-election after three terms on the board representing most of county’s western suburbs: Edina, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Wayzata, Orono, Mound, Excelsior, Shorewood, Greenwood, Spring Park, Deephaven, Minnetonka Bay, Long Lake and the northern part of Eden Prairie.
Six candidates lined up to fill Callison’s seat, with the August primary winnowing the group down to two: Chris LaTondresse and Dario Anselmo.
LaTondresse is currently the vice chair of the Hopkins School Board and works as a public education advocate. He is endorsed by the DFL and Callison. LaTondresse said the nod from the outgoing commissioner is important because she knows what it takes to represent the district.
“We need good government now more than ever,” he said, pointing to the challenge of delivering services amid the coronavirus pandemic and in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
A big piece of that, in LaTondresse’s estimation, is giving Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson “our full support,” and making sure the sheriff’s department has the resources for addressing mental health and social work needs. He adds that every resident deserves equal treatment in the county’s criminal justice system, and that every resident has the right to start and grow a business, “which is why I opposed the destruction of property we have seen this summer,” he said.
LaTondresse said he is the only candidate that has served in “local government in an elected capacity.”
Anselmo, an entrepreneur and former Republican state representative from Edina’s House District 49A, has been endorsed by several current and former mayors of District 6 cities and politicians from both parties, including former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad and former Minneapolis Council President Barbara Johnson.
During his time in the statehouse, Anselmo described himself as a “painful independent, a person with an ‘R’ after their name talking about gun violence.”
He said he made sure to be at the first George Floyd protest while also supporting first responders recovering from injuries sustained during unrest.
Anselmo said District 6 is made up of everyone from Democrats to people who are far more conservative than he is: “That’s the district,” he said. “It’s not a progressive, Minneapolis seat. That’s Chris’ politics. There are parts of his politics I like. But this is not a blue or red district. And that’s not me, either.”
Anselmo’s biggest priority is mental health services, specifically building partnerships to better fund and expand them. He is also a “public safety supporter” who doesn’t want the county to be too reactive regarding law enforcement reform.
In 2018, current District 7 Commissioner Jeff Johnson, first elected in 2008, announced he would not seek reelection in 2020. Three candidates filed for the primary, and top two vote-getters Kevin Anderson and Danny Nadeau made it to the general election for the seat, which represents the communities of Champlin, Corcoran, Dayton, Greenfield, Independence, Loretto, Maple Grove, Maple Plain, Medina, Minnetrista, Southern Mound, Rogers, St. Bonifacius, Hanover, Northwest Plymouth and Rockford.
A Maple Grove resident and technical project architect, Anderson is endorsed by AFSCME Council 5 and the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation AFL-CIO. He points to three issues that would be priorities if elected: transportation, health services and the environment.
“District 7 gets about 1/10 of what the next lowest funded district gets in infrastructure investment,” said Anderson, who juxtaposed that with the size of the district, which is the largest in the county.
Anderson said he would shift the county’s priorities so that things like updated cross lights and other road improvements get more attention. When it comes to health services, Anderson says his focus is on increasing efficient delivery. Mental health services, he said, should be more accessible to the people who need it where they are, which is why he wants to push for a plan that would outfit county libraries with mental health staff and offices, and partner with schools to do the same.
Nadeau currently serves as chief of staff to Johnson, who has endorsed him for the seat. If elected, Nadeau said his time would be dedicated to achieving “balance and equity” in policy decisions.
Though 15 percent of all of Hennepin County’s property taxes come from District 7, the district gets the least county investment in roads, bridges, libraries and social services, said Nadeau. He said he wants to level this imbalance, since the needs in the district are similar to those in more densely populated parts of the county. “Eliminate human suffering, that’s our job, that’s what we are supposed to do,” said Nadeau. “Provide services to low income families, to vulnerable children in foster care and child protection — that’s our job,” he continued. “Everything else is kind of outside of that.”